Abbotsford Convent, ex-monastic site and former orphanage, lay pretty much derelict until 2005, but now it’s one of the most progressive art spaces and eclectic day trips in inner-city Melbourne. Why?
Picture this: 6.8 hectares of gorgeous, grassy land dotted with cows and fluffy white sheep; budding gardens, which border the Yarra River, abuzz with creatives picnicking on the grass.
The aroma of sizzling onion and garlic on an open-pit barbecue fills the air, and the gentle sound of acoustic guitar filters out from a magnificent Gothic structure, reminiscent of a scene from Harry Potter.
This is Abbotsford Convent, former residence of the Good Shepherd, and now Australia’s largest multi-arts precinct; a vibrant community space that hosts farmers’ markets, yoga retreats, art and baking classes, and funky live music; the likes of Kurt Vile have played here.
Here are nine reasons why you might want to consider this inner-city hang-out for your next Melbourne day trip.
1. To browse the cool galleries and studios
The convent is home to 100 studio spaces and two cutting-edge galleries, which set the tone for the entire place.
There is always an exhibition and/or festival on across a diverse range of disciplines (check what’s on now). The c3 Contemporary Art Space focuses on emerging local and international artists, while St Heliers Street Gallery showcases the assorted talents of the convent’s community.
2. For your health and wellbeing
The convent community binds together to provide a variety of wellbeing programs including yoga and meditation, plus just about any alternative therapy you can put a name to, such as shiatsu, kinesiology and homeopathy.
An Ayurvedic massage here comes highly recommended.
3. For an ethical bite to eat
Okay, so it’s not exactly downtown Flinders Lane, but you can find good food at a fair price among the Abbotsford’s handful of cafe options.
As the name suggests, Lentil as Anything caters to vegetarians, vegans and the generally hungry, and has impeccable organic and Fairtrade credentials. It operates on a pay-as-you-feel philosophy.
The Convent Bakery Bar & Pizzeria executes pastry classics well – cookies, tarts, quiches et al – as well as sandwiches and wood-fired bread in ovens that date back to 1901.
The Bar and Pizzeria is a fine weekend option, with a hip choice of micro-brewery beers on offer (the pizzeria is closed in winter).
Summer opens up your wining and dining options exponentially with barbecue and wine parties such as the Cool Down Summer Series hosted by top chefs on the schedule.
4. For an old-skool picnic
There’s no pressure to eat at one of the cafes, which is great because there are hectares of manicured gardens to spread out with ample shade.
Speaking of shade, take a gander at the grand old English oak tree that was planted in 1850, in commemoration of Victoria separating from New South Wales. It’s also pet friendly, so you can bring along your dog or cat too (if she’ll come).
5. For the markets – and not just the farmers’
Locals prowl for fresh, organic super-fruits, honey and sausages at the Slow Food Farmers’ Market on the fourth Saturday of every month. If you’re a fromage fiend, do not pass the cheese lady.
(Parking hack: The Convent gets busy on market days so if parking is tight, consider crossing to the other side of the Yarra River to look for a spot.)
It’s not all about the food, however, with Makers’ Market for crafts and gifts from local artisans and the self-evident Shirt & Skirt Market held on the third Sunday of the month.
6. To see movies under the moon at the open-air cinema
Claiming to be the ‘only cinema in the world set inside a convent’, Shadow Electric screens a broad range of genres in its cosy setting from cult heroes and nerd-pleasing sci-fi to considered docos and, of course, mainstream blockbusters.
It’s only on during the summer season – this is Melbourne, after all.
7. To try painting, baking and writing (classes)
You can try your hand at painting with oils and acrylics, or come home with a warm, fresh loaf of ciabatta that you’ve baked with your very own hands.
Abbotsford hosts a fun range of workshops, courses and classes every week: from calligraphy to qigong to writing and artisan bread-making.
8. To dust off your bicycle
Abbotsford is only four kilometres as the crow flies from Melbourne’s CBD so it’s perfectly doable on a bicycle (or as a walk if you are feeling energetic).
If you’re looking to loosen your cycle legs a little more, the tranquil Yarra-hugging Capital City Trail also takes in downtown and the Melbourne Zoo. The catch? The full loop is 32 kilometres.
9. To wear out and impress the kids
Not only is there ample space for your children to run off their sugar hits, there is also not-for-profit Collingwood Children’s Farm over at nearby St Heliers street.
The charming not-for-profit city farm offers pony rides and animal canoodling for the children and perhaps a coffee for you from the cafe.
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